Congress questions US-VISIT


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Lawmakers questioned this week the effectiveness of an entry/exit system that relies on still-disparate watch lists and lacks a process to track visitors' exits.

Representatives, many from border states, from the House Select Committee on Homeland Security's subcommittee on infrastructure and border security wanted details about the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program. They worried that travelers from the 27 exempted countries in the program create a hole in national security.

"Some of us on this subcommittee wonder if the US-VISIT program as it stands is really the most effective tool to deter terrorism in the United States," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.)

Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, and Maura Harty, State Department assistant secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, testified before the subcommittee Jan. 28.

The first phase of US-VISIT was rolled out Jan. 5 at 115 airports and 14 seaports to track the entry of foreign visitors into the United States, and the system is expected to be implemented at the 50 largest land border entry points by the end of the year. Baltimore and Miami are testing exit technology to track leaving visitors.

Although Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, commended DHS officials for meeting the deadline for the final phase, he raised concerns that the system was not checking visitors against all available watch lists. Other members echoed his concern.

"US-VISIT is a work in progress," Cox said in a written statement. "The US-VISIT program has not yet integrated all of the existing law enforcement and terrorist databases into its search capabilities. This is a complex task and it needs additional attention."

Hutchinson said agents run a traveler's name through the Interagency Border Inspection System, which includes various interagency databases and is linked to the Terrorist Screening Center, which handles the terrorist watch lists.

For countries exempt from US-Visit through the Visa Waiver Program, officials are taking steps toward having machine-readable travel documents with biometrics to follow similar US-VISIT procedures. State officials started this biometric visa program in September 2003, and 55 visa-issuing posts abroad use the program. The remaining 211 posts will be operational by October 2004 to meet Congressional mandates, Harty said.

Lawmakers also discussed an internal DHS memo sent out before the first phase implementation this month. The memo described a mitigation plan in case US-VISIT did not work properly or excessively extended passenger wait times. For example, if the wait time reached 10 percent more than usual, officials would stop screening certain passengers, such as those younger than 17, Hutchinson said.

"It seems like you send a terrible signal to field operations," about the importance of the system, said Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas). "This system has to be airtight."

Hutchinson assured the panel that the memo was simply a plan in case the system didn't work properly. Officials needed some flexibility in the initial rollout, and officials did not need to use the plan, he said.

"This is a new system," Hutchinson said. "We didn't know exactly how it would progress." The memo "had an important foundation, but it was a back up plan if there were unforeseen circumstances. That was not the case."


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